The Max Plank-Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change (Max-Cam) funds a seminar series for graduate students to organize and host a day-long seminar. These seminars bring together a small group of Cambridge graduate students along with typically one senior academic to investigate some topic of interest within Max-Cam’s remit. By and large, the Max-Cam seminars have been spaces that are by Cambridge students, for Cambridge students. In February 2020, we were planning to submit a proposal for a seminar addressing the intersection between kinship, economics, and ethics. Based on our experience of other similar seminars at Cambridge, we planned to only invite our friends and colleagues in the university.
As was happening all over the world in March 2020, Max-Cam postponed the seminar series due to the pandemic. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to work with the center, we spoke with the grant administrator to pitch an idea for a virtual seminar. We highlighted that one benefit of moving the seminar to a virtual space was that people from outside of our university would be able to participate at little to no cost. Max-Cam enthusiastically sponsored our proposal.
However, moving the seminar online spurred deeper questions about the nature and purpose of these seminars, requiring us to be creative in how and who we would include. What limits were intrinsically set in place by dint of the seminar being virtual? What did moving the seminar online afford us to do? What were the politics and ethics of these changes, and how could we actively seek to improve our intellectual practices? And finally, practically speaking, who were the people outside our university that we wanted to include, and how would we find them?
This post explores how we navigated inviting people we had never met before, the reflective processes that went into our invitations, what happened as a result, and some recommendations. Ultimately, we propose “cold contacting” as a method that, both now during the pandemic when meeting face-to-face isn’t safe and in whatever forms of academic life appear after the pandemic, can bring together early career scholars in the face of institutional and structural constraints.
When thinking about how we would host our seminar, we drew inspiration from the SCA’s 2018 Displacements and 2020 Distribute conferences and were also inspired by a special session at the Association of Social Anthropologist’s 2019 annual conference on redesigning the academic conference put on by Hannah Knox (Knox’s presentation was inspired by her decision to forego flying, see Knox 2018, 2019). That is, we started thinking at once about how we could make the virtual Max-Cam seminar more inclusive to graduate students that would have otherwise never been able to participate in the physical version of these seminars simply because there would have been no practical way for them to attend (as the seminar grant budget is generous but insufficient to support transportation for graduate students from other places). But also, even if graduate students could somehow overcome the political and economic boundaries restricting them from participating in these sorts of seminars, we questioned whether or not students from such places ought to attend (in person), since such travel would just reproduce the same sort of carbon costs of senior scholars who can afford to make similar sorts of trips, as Knox argues (see also Pandian 2019, 2020). We were excited by the prospect that we could potentially bring together students from diverse places under one virtual roof (as it were) in a more responsible way.
But we immediately discovered a problem: We didn’t know many students from other institutions—much less institutions outside the UK. How exactly should two white Americans at the University of Cambridge go about finding graduate students from institutions across the world who would like to participate? We couldn’t just ask our supervisor or others in our department as the whole point was to extend beyond the network of graduate students working in and around Cambridge. Breaking these elite academic circles was very much at the forefront of our endeavor.
The best we could come up with to answer this conundrum was to cold contact graduate students who, based on their online presence on departmental websites, we thought might be interested in participating in the seminar. While we scrolled through institution after institution, we tried to be aware of gender, racial, and linguistic biases in inviting people that we might not always statistically see at the larger disciplinary conferences in hopes that we provide a more inclusive space at our small-scale seminar.
We don’t want to hash out methods of etiquette or tact in the cold-contact interaction, but instead how the thinking underpinning who we reached out to was undressed by the response of one graduate student we invited. This student, working at an R1 university in the United States on one of the topics our seminar was addressing, simply (but politely) responded to our cold-contact email with a question, “How did you find me?” Most students we contacted were interested and amicable—but extremely curious about how we came across them specifically—especially since they didn’t see any sort of parallel between their research and the proposed seminar topic. (This student wasn’t alone and many of the people we invited inquired similarly.) In responding to this student, we realized that we were assuming interest based on potential participants’ supervisors (and their publications) and the information we could find about the students on departmental websites and other places online.
Considering these assumptions, we realized that not only had we perhaps misread the students’ online profiles and published work (a problem in its own right) but that we had also fundamentally reintroduced a problem into how we were finding participants (i.e., finding graduate students based on their supervisors). We thought that because graduate students publish less, and their profiles on departmental websites are often paltry, we might be able to find interested students based on their supervisors. But by focusing on finding graduate students based on the visibility of their supervisors, we were inevitably working against our goal to make the seminar inclusive.
Because of these issues we also issued a more standard fare call for papers (CfP), emailing department administrators asking them to forward information about the seminar to their graduate students. In retrospect, we now realize that for all that the CfP afforded us (i.e., spontaneous connections to the topic of our seminar we could have never seen), we lost the relational and dialogic approach that cold contacting necessarily requires. That is, when we contacted that student at the U.S. university, they had to be convinced to participate, which entailed a back-and-forth between us and them. Whereas CfPs are more monologic—if you will—the writing included in the call is the only thing that does that work of persuading a person to participate. The dialogues formed in our cold contacting created relationships that made the later seminar (a small meeting of strangers who were to be new colleagues) more intimate and familiar. Further, because we could never totally know a potential participant’s interests, our conversations ended up sparking the sorts of spontaneous connections a CfP would have anyway.
In the end, we think the seminar, despite our unresolved issues, was a success—we heard papers from graduate students at institutions across the globe representing Brazil, the United States, England, Scotland, Hungary, Italy, and China. We qualified this as a success due to the fact that we were able to get around twenty people in a virtual room for a small-scale seminar that would have otherwise been hyper-localized. Of course, such a virtual space loses the intimacy of a face-to-face meeting that could have been without the pandemic. But this is outweighed by the fact that we brought together early career scholars from a range of institutions. Moreover, over a year after this seminar, there are eight of us young scholars working together to write a very involved edited volume in which we collaboratively exchange our ideas and work together to write a coherent book together (instead of writing stand alone, vaguely related ethnographic chapters).
To us, this signals a future where the boundaries of knowledge sharing transverse institutional barriers in inclusive, economical, and environmentally responsible ways—especially for graduate students, who are perhaps more often cordoned off in their own departments and institutions. We propose cold contacting as a makeshift but necessary method for achieving meetings that transcend institutional and epistemological boundaries. This type of transcendence, as demonstrated by our edited volume, will most definitely lead to other creative renewals of traditional academic structures.
We acknowledge that the institutional name recognition that accompanied our emails increased the likelihood that people responded, but we hold that cold contacting is not a method just for those at powerful universities. We hold that cold contacting—extending invitations to peers you’ve never met before at other universities—holds the potential to be a radical method of reformatting who attends what seminars, both during the pandemic and after. Cold contacting can be transformational because it is dialogic. It is the start of a relationship. How else can junior scholars, who’ve never met before, come together, especially considering the issues surrounding large-scale academic conferences both in terms of climate and access for students from around the world? Twitter (and other social media) might be one option, but it skews to a very specific type of scholarly subject and is certainly not representative of graduate students nor junior scholars globally.
We hope that this post has demonstrated some of the thinking that we put into cold contacting for our seminar. It could be used as the start of what is a very simple, three-point action plan for anyone to begin cold contacting colleagues around the world:
We’ve framed these actionable techniques somewhat flippantly, but we hold that cold contacting is fairly simple and to the point. Above we’ve tried to gather some of the ways we tried to think through some of the biases that delimit how we cold-contacted our peers. But our thinking as such is hyper-localized to our being where and who we are. Because we understand cold contacting to be a method adoptable by anyone, this “thinking” will pertain to where and who you are. Aside from that, we can’t imagine any other way than selecting your favorite search engine to find people you’ve never met and emailing them. We genuinely recognize that searching for people and then reaching out to them might be daunting and anxiety-provoking tasks—we’ve been there—but the work of searching for people to contact is in itself quite simple. Since this series is open, we would encourage others to submit posts that explore their specific techniques for contacting colleagues. Moreover, we would love to elicit responses from people that have been cold contacted. What did you make of the experience? What would you have done differently?
If and when meeting face-to-face once again becomes the norm in universities around the world, we hope that the now ubiquitous digital meeting doesn’t entirely disappear (“Zoom-fatigued” though we all are). The potential it holds to (continue) to reorganize our small academic meetings and transcend institutional boundaries has been evidenced over the last year of pandemic life. But, even if digital meetings do become the new norm, if we don’t cold contact new colleagues, we will just retreat back behind institutional boundaries.
Knox, Hannah. 2018. “Not Flying: Steps towards a Post-carbon Anthropology?” Hannah Knox (blog), March 24.
———. 2019. “A Year without Flying.” Hannah Knox (blog), July 2.
Pandian, Anand. 2019. “Reimagining the Annual Meeting for an Era of Radical Climate Change.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, November 19.
———. 2020. “Redesigning the Annual Conference: Contagion, Carbon, Access, Equity.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, March 18.